I have a couple of projects where I need to print my own decals. A particular problem with printing decals is how to print white? Most printers don’t print white. They rely on the white of the paper. But if you’re printing on something that isn’t white, like clear decal film, the vast array of printers out there gets reduced to a handful.
By far the most popular printer for modelers seeking to print decals are the ALPS Micro Dry series of printers. Introduced in 1996 or 1997 (the MD-1000 manual is copyright January 1997, although Systems Consulting claims to be an ALPS supplier since 1996), the Micro Dry series was unique in that it deposited wax pigment on the paper, rather than ink dyes or pigment. Producing photo-realistic output (early models boasted 300 dpi, the same as most commercial print labs, while later models boasted 600 dpi output), the printer further distinguished itself with the ability to print “spot colors.”
The ability to print “spot colors” added the ability to print white and metalic colors (silver and gold) – something no other consumer printer could do at the time. The benefit to modelers was that white could be printed on the clear decal film, both to print white, and to give better print density. For instance, a clear decal film printed with yellow ink will look very dark on a dark background, and the color will shift toward the hue of the underlying color (i.e. Box Car Red). The ability to first print white, and then the color desired gave the ability to print truly opaque decals, rather than ones that were translucent.
But in 2000, facing competition from Epson, Canon, and other printer manufacturers of inkjet printers, ALPS decided to withdraw from the retail printer market. Some printers continued to be available in Japan, and several companies (Kodak, OKI-Data, Citizen, Roland, Powis, and possibly others) had ALPS build printers under their name. In March 2007, ALPS finally shut down production of both printers and supplies (including the coveted white cartridges).
With limited supplies, prices for remaining stock continue to escalate, as do the value of used printers (even though there are very few repair options). There are other problems. For many years, you could only operate these printers on Macintosh or Windows computers using Windows XP or earlier. However, there is now a driver for at least the later MD-5000 series printer available that supports Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Windows 8. Street prices for used MD-5000 and MD-5500 printers are from $750 on up.
If this were a viable printer (i.e. Drivers and printing supplies available) with a price tag of under $500, I would buy it. But it isn’t. With the diminishing supply of printer ribbons, these printers will not be around much longer. I’m surprised they’ve lasted this long. Several commercial “cottage industry” decal manufacturers who depended on the ALPS printer have already closed shop, which is a shame, as the artwork would still be useful.
This got me investigating alternatives:
1. Okidata Laser Printer: Okidata makes a couple of laser printers that print white targeted at the textile industry – T-shirt printers. The Oki 711WT and proColor pro920WT. These printers are meant to print textile transfers, and I haven’t been able to find any information on how suitable these printers would be for waterslide decal production. Street price for the 711WT is about $3,400, and about $7,500 for the pro920WT. This is well beyond what I can afford as a hobbiest, and I haven’t done a business case analysis to see if something like this would be economically feasible as a startup business, even if I had the time to dedicate to such a business.
2. Converted laser printers: Automatic Transfers, Inc. offers several color laser printers converted to dye sublimation, replacing the black toner cartridge with white. The normal Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow toner cartridges have to be replaced with dye sublimation toner in order to overprint the white toner. Prices are on their web site.
3. Dry Transfer from laser printers: DecalPro® FX is an interesting concept, using a colored film (including white!) to bond to the toner using a laminator. At the end, only the foil (with the black toner underneath) is applied to the model. No decal film! However, white is the thickest film they have available, and it may have to be “doubled up” to be truly opaque. Aside from the laminator and a heat gun, prices seem relatively inexpensive compared to the above choices.
4. White Embossing Powder: This was a tough to find tip. It had elluded me for several months, but I found mention of it on an aircraft modeler forum, and have been intrigued enough to give this a try. Embossing powder is used in craft projects, such as card-making. Paper is stamped with some sort of adhesive. Then the powder is sprinkled on. Heat from a heat gun is then used to dry the adhesive, and set the embossing powder. The loose powder (that wasn’t bonded with the stamped adhesive) can be collected revealing the desired pattern in the desired color.
That works for handmade greeting cards, but how about our models? Well, theory is that you print your decal paper with an inkjet printer. Since the decal paper doesn’t absorb the ink, the ink will stay wet for some time. Long enough that you can sprinkle the embossing powder on the decal paper, and the wet ink will grab onto the embossing powder. Heat the decal paper with a heat gun, and the embossing powder bonds to the decal. Remove the excess embossing powder (if the heat gun hasn’t blown it off already), and seal with clear acrylic. Testor’s makes a suitable spray, although I’ll be trying this with Tamiya gloss clear acrylic. I’m much better with an airbrush than a spray can.
I’ve got the decal paper and the clear. My embossing powder should arrive next week. I’ll give this last option a try and report back in part 2. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try the DecalPro® FX option.
Wish me luck!